Despite a furious Republican counter-attack to save Karl Rove, new evidence points to George W. Bush’s political guru having joined in a White House conspiracy to punish former Ambassador Joseph Wilson for criticizing Bush’s use of intelligence on Iraq.
A key Republican defense of Rove has been that the White House deputy chief of staff only recycled rumors from reporters in 2003 when he told other reporters about Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, and her covert identity as a CIA officer who worked on issues related to weapons of mass destruction.
But two new facts contradict that assertion and show that Rove was coordinating his leaks about Plame with officials in Bush’s National Security Council and Vice President Dick Cheney’s office.
The first new piece of evidence is a little-noticed part of Time magazine correspondent Matthew Cooper’s testimony last week before a federal grand jury in Washington.
Some news articles have noted Cooper’s statement that Rove brought up Wilson’s wife during an interview on July 11, 2003, and that Rove volunteered that she worked for “the agency” on WMD issues. Cooper said Rove cited these facts in claiming that Plame was responsible for Wilson’s trip to Africa in February 2002 to investigate whether Iraq was trying to obtain yellowcake uranium from Niger.
What’s been overlooked, however, is another part of Cooper’s account. Cooper said his notes reveal that Rove then added that “material was going to be declassified in the coming days that would cast doubt on Wilson’s mission and his findings.” In ending the conversation, Rove said, “I’ve already said too much,” according to Cooper. [Time, July 25, 2005, issue]
Rove’s assertion that he knew about plans to declassify material on Wilson indicates that Rove was not just a loose-lipped talker repeating stuff he’d heard from reporters, but he was a participant in internal White House discussions about how to counteract Wilson’s criticisms by releasing then-secret information.
Jumping the Gun
In their haste to counteract Wilson’s New York Times op- ed article, which accused Bush of twisting the WMD evidence to justify the Iraq invasion, Rove and other administration officials appear to have jumped the gun.
Instead of waiting for declassification, they simply started divulging secrets that they thought would undermine Wilson.
Though Cooper said he wasn’t sure what Rove meant with his comment about having “already said too much,” the phrase suggests that Rove was aware that he had crossed the line by disclosing classified information. Federal law prohibits government officials from disclosing classified information as well as the intentional exposure of covert CIA operatives.
The second new fact is what Rove did after his conversation with Cooper.
Although supposedly in a rush to leave on vacation, Rove e-mailed Stephen J. Hadley, then Bush’s deputy national security adviser (and now national security adviser).
According to the Associated Press, Rove’s e-mail said he “didn’t take the bait” when Cooper suggested that Wilson’s criticisms had hurt the administration.
While it’s not entirely clear what Rove meant in the e- mail, the significance is that Rove immediately reported to Hadley, an official who was in a position to know classified details about Plame’s job. In other words, the e-mail is evidence that the assault on Wilson was being coordinated at senior White House levels.
Cooper also told the grand jury that his second source on the allegations about the Niger trip and Wilson’s wife was Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a leading neoconservative advocate for invading Iraq. According to Cooper, Libby said on a not-for-attribution basis about Plame, “Yeah, I’ve heard that, too.”
For the past two years, there have been other indications that the White House engaged in a conspiracy to punish or discredit Wilson by leaking information about his wife, who had served overseas as a CIA covert operative using “non-official cover” â€“ known as NOC â€“ which is far more dangerous than U.S. spies operating under official cover.
In September 2003, a senior White House official told the Washington Post that at least six reporters had been informed about Plame before Novak’s column appeared on July 14, 2003. The official said the disclosures about Plame were “purely and simply out of revenge.”
>From the start, the Republican assault on Wilson has
concentrated on the strange point about his wife supposedly arranging his fact-finding trip to Niger, though it’s never been clear why the Republicans consider this question so important. Who authorized the trip wouldn’t seem to have much bearing on Wilson’s conclusion that the Iraqis weren’t seeking yellowcake uranium in Niger â€“ an assessment that turned out to be correct.
Yet, even now, the Republican National Committee continues to focus its fire on this small part of the controversy. On July 14, for instance, the RNC posted “Joe Wilson’s Top Ten Worst Inaccuracies and Misstatements,” which leads off with what is really an RNC misrepresentation about the trip issue, claiming that “Wilson insisted that the Vice President’s office sent him to Niger.”
But not even the RNC’s own citation supports this accusation. To back up its charge, the RNC states, “Wilson said he traveled to Niger at CIA request to help provide response to Vice President’s office.”
That’s followed by a quote from Wilson: “In February 2002, I was informed by officials at the Central Intelligence Agency that Vice President Dick Cheney’s office had questions about a particular intelligence report. … The agency officials asked if I would travel to Niger to check out the story so they could provide a response to the Vice President’s office.”
To nail Wilson, the RNC then quotes Cheney as saying, “I don’t know Joe Wilson. I’ve never met Joe Wilson.”
But nothing in the comments by Wilson and Cheney are in contradiction. Wilson simply said CIA officials sent him on a mission because of questions from Cheney’s office.
Cheney said he doesn’t know Wilson. Both points could be true, yet the RNC juxtaposed them to support a charge of dishonesty against Wilson. (The rest of the supposed “top ten” are a similar mix of RNC quibbles and
A Long War
This long White House war against Wilson dates back to the weeks after Bush cited a British “white paper” in his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, 2003. In what became known as the “sixteen words,” Bush said, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
Bush’s statement about an Iraqi nuclear weapons program â€“ amplified by administration officials and conservative pundits â€“ frightened many Americans into supporting Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
On March 7, 2003, however, the International Atomic Energy Agency exposed the Niger documents as “not authentic.” The next day, a State Department spokesman acknowledged that the U.S. government “fell for it.”
Wilson appeared on CNN, saying that the U.S. government had more information about the Niger fabrication. After that appearance, Wilson said sources told him that a meeting in the Vice President’s office led to a decision “to produce a workup” to discredit Wilson, according to his memoir, The Politics of Truth.
Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003.
Though U.S. forces ousted Saddam Hussein’s government three weeks later, no caches of WMD were discovered, nor was there any evidence of an active nuclear-weapons program.
As more questions were raised about the honesty of Bush’s WMD case and Wilson spoke with some journalists on background about his Niger trip, the workup on Wilson took shape. On June 10, 2003, a State Department memo, written by under secretary of state for political affairs Marc Grossman, referred to “Valerie Wilson” as the wife of former Ambassador Wilson, the envoy who had traveled to Niger. [NYT, July 16, 2005]
Then, on July 6, 2003, Wilson wrote an op-ed for the New York Times entitled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.” He asserted, “Some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons programs was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.” Wilson also appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to elaborate on the yellowcake dispute.
Flight to Africa
Later that day, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L.
Armitage called Carl W. Ford Jr., the assistant secretary for intelligence and research, at home and asked him to send a copy of the June 10 memo to Secretary of State Colin Powell, according to a former State Department official interviewed by the New York Times.
Since Powell was preparing to leave with Bush on a trip to Africa, Ford sent the memo to the White House for delivery to Powell, the former official told the Times.
[NYT, July 16, 2005]
The next day, when Bush left for Africa, Powell was carrying the memo containing the information about Plame’s work for the CIA and other details about the yellowcake dispute, the Washington Post reported.
A day later, on July 8, 2003, right-wing columnist Robert Novak told Rove that he (Novak) had heard that Plame had sent Wilson on the mission to Niger, according to a lawyer who has spoken to several news organizations. The lawyer said Rove responded, “I heard that, too.” [Washington Post, July 17, 2005]
In his memoir, Wilson wrote that Novak â€“ in this time period â€“ also told one of Wilson’s friends that he
(Novak) knew about Plame’s work for the CIA.
On July 11, 2003, CIA Director George Tenet apologized for not keeping the yellowcake reference out of the State of the Union speech. “This did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches,” Tenet said.
Despite that admission, the Bush administration continued its behind-the-scenes assault on Wilson and his credibility.
Time correspondent Cooper conducted his interviews about Wilson with Rove and Libby on July 11 and 12, respectively. Meanwhile, “a senior administration official flagged the role of Wilson’s wife, almost in passing, to the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus,” the Post reported in a later chronology of the case.
On July 14, 2003, the secret about Plame’s CIA identity was made public in Novak’s column. “Two senior administration officials told me Wilson’s wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate” the yellowcake report, Novak also wrote.
A Wider War
After Novak’s column, the Bush administration appears to have intensified its campaign to discredit Wilson.
On July 20, 2003, NBC’s correspondent Andrea Mitchell told Wilson that “senior White House sources” had called her to stress “the real story here is not the 16 words .. but Wilson and his wife,” according to Wilson’s memoir.
The next day, Wilson said he was told by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that “I just got off the phone with Karl Rove.
He says and I quote, â€˜Wilson’s wife is fair game.”
When Newsday spoke with Novak â€“ before he decided to clam up â€“ Novak said he had been approached by the sources with the information about Plame. “I didn’t dig it out, it was given to me,” Novak said. “They thought it was significant, they gave me the name and I used it.” [Newsday, July 22, 2003]
On July 22, 2003, White House spokesman Scott McClellan denied any White House role in the Plame leak. “I’m telling you flatly that that is not the way this White House operates,” McClellan said at a press briefing.
On July 30, 2003, the CIA requested a Justice Department investigation into the disclosure of a covert CIA officer, leading to the appointment of U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald as a special prosecutor to examine possible criminality in the Plame case.
Since the scandal resurfaced in the past few weeks â€“ as New York Times reporter Judith Miller went to jail rather than divulge her sources and Time magazine agreed to cooperate with Fitzgerald â€“ the White House has refused to comment.
But that has not stopped the RNC and the conservative news media from continuing the P.R. war against Wilson. The Bush administration and its allies seem to believe that the best way to prevent a conspiracy from collapsing is to expand it.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It’s also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth.’